Starting your first garden



Poster text by Emily Springfield and images by Victoria Zakrzewski. You may reuse it for non-commercial purposes if you attribute it to the authors.


Should I buy seeds or transplants?

I get asked this all the time, and I also see plants for sale at outrageous prices that people should really be planting as seeds.

Short list:

Always use transplants (either buy them or start indoors):

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Onions (plant the dry “sets” that look like baby onions, or plants that look like scallions)
  • Kale/collards
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Woody herbs, like rosemary, sage, and basil

Always plant as seeds directly in the garden:

  • Peas and beans
  • Lettuce
  • Corn
  • Root vegetables: carrots, radishes, parsnips, beets, turnips, rutabagas
  • Cilantro

Here’s my long answer – in visual form!

Seeds or transplants.jpg

What should I plant in my first garden?


Grow what you love.

This always holds true, but it’s especially important for your first garden. And notice – I didn’t say “grow what you love to eat” – just grow things that make you happy. Do zinnias remind you of your favorite grandmother? Be sure to include them. Do sunflowers make you smile? Grow those. Have you always wondered what peanut plants look like? Save a spot for them!

If you are really not sure what you like yet, some good “starter” garden vegetables are:

  • Tomatoes
  • Green beans
  • Kale
  • Zucchini
  • Snow peas
  • Potatoes

All of these are easy to grow, produce a reasonable amount of food in a small  space, and taste noticeably better than store-bought varieties. Obviously, don’t grow anything you know you won’t eat.

Explore pre-planned gardens

Gardener’s Supply Company has a GREAT free drag-and-drop garden planning tool, and also a gallery of garden plans for a couple different sizes of beds.


Screenshot of a pre-planned garden from Gardener’s Supply Co.

Don’t overextend yourself

If you’ve never gardened before, I recommend starting with one 4’x8′ raised bed. This is enough space to get appreciable harvests, but not so big as to overwhelm. I know this seems small, but the #1 reason I see that people abandon gardening after a year is that they take on too much the first year, and gardening becomes a chore instead of a delight. Once you get the first year under your belt, the steepest part of the learning curve is out of the way…and adding more beds the next year doesn’t feel like much more work.



Very simple succession planting for zone 5b-6

Succession planting is the idea that you plant your garden in stages, so there’s always something to eat and you don’t get all your green beans in a 2-week window. There are tons of books and guides out there to help you figure this out, but I thought I’d share what I’ve figured out that works for me. What “works for me” means the most food for the least amount of fussing. Tweak as you see fit.

Some assumptions:

  • The only things I start from seed are things I can direct-sow in the garden: peas, beans, squash, root vegetables, sunflowers. I don’t start my own tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, or onions. I buy all those things as transplants on one warm weekend in May and call it good.
  • The one exception to this rule is kale. I’m a kale fiend, and picky about variety. So I do generally start some kale indoors in about March. And oh, while I’ve got the lights up, maybe some other brassicas like broccoli or cabbage.

There are certain things that start early and end early, and only so many things that you can start late and have any kind of harvest. So I tend to think of these things as “pairs” in the garden bed – the early crop and the late crop. For example, after I pull the turnips out, I always then put in bush beans.

  • Early crops: Turnips, lettuce, onions, peas, radishes. These are all things I can plant mid- to late-April, and they will be out of the garden by July 4th.
  • Late crops: Bush beans, fall crop of kale, fall lettuce, spinach, garlic (plant in October). Bush beans planted at July 4th will usually set a crop before frost. Lettuce and kale might need to be started indoors, or under shade, because they don’t like hot weather at all. But if you don’t get those started by August, you won’t have much of a fall/winter crop. Spinach planted after October will really get eaten in the spring, but it’s totally worth planting that late because it’ll be the first thing you eat in June (even without a greenhouse).

I also like to minimize the number of times I’m planting things. So, instead of planting 1/4 of my total bean crop every 2 weeks for two months, I’ve found it works great to plant a row of bush beans and a row of pole beans at the same time. They will start to bear a week or two apart, usually. Then I plant some more bush beans when one of the early crops comes out, and that usually covers me for the whole summer. Other pairings for extending the harvest:

  • Bush + pole beans
  • Indeterminate + determinate (i.e., “patio”) tomatoes
  • Short + tall snap/snow peas
  • Early + late potatoes
  • Everbearing + June-bearing strawberries
  • Early + late “storage” carrots

Your seed catalog should tell you days to maturity and/or key words like “earliest bean we carry” or “great for storage” or “determinate tomato concentrates harvest over two weeks” or “harvest all summer long.” Using these kinds of pairings lets you plant at the same time but harvest at different times.

So – what I recommend for truly simple “succession” planting is:

  • Pick some early/late pairs: for example, turnips + bush beans; lettuce + late kale; peas + garlic – and plan to put those in the same space in your garden. Once you figure out a couple that work for you, you can use the same pairings each year.
  • For other crops, pick varieties that will mature at different times and plant two varieties as indicated in the list above.

That’s it!

Comparison of raised beds, sheet mulching, and tilling: a three-year study of home gardening methods

The short version:

In the past 7 years, I have built three types of garden beds at my current location.

  1. Plowing of local soil, with horse manure added.
  2. Sheet mulching.  Corrugated cardboard over sod, covered with a variety of materials.
  3. Raised beds. Sides made of composite decking or 2x8s, placed directly on sod, filled with garden blend soil and/or horse manure.

I’ve had all three types for at least three years now, and I’m ready to proclaim a winner: raised beds. Plowing was an abysmal failure.

The details: (After the jump) Read the rest of this entry »

Common questions from new gardeners

GardenersYesterday, I led a garden planning workshop with Preserving Traditions at the Pittsfield Grange. A couple of questions came up more than once, so I thought I’d answer them here in case they interest anyone else.

What material should I use for my raised bed’s walls?

I’ve used both composite decking material and 2″x8″x8′ standard (untreated) pine lumber. The composite has bowed out over the years but the pine hasn’t. I’m not sure how long the pine will last, but after 3 6 years in my Michigan zone 5b garden, it’s not showing much wear or rot. It’s also cheap, easy to find, and there’s no worry about leaching chemicals, so it is my preference for all my new beds. YMMV, especially if you live where it’s warm all year and termites are a problem.

Do I need to dig up the sod/soil before building my raised bed?

No. If you put at least 6″ of dirt and compost in the bed, it will smother all the grass. The grass will compost and become worm food, and your deeper-rooted plants will soften the hardpan. Save your back! Let the plants and worms do the work!

What soil should I use in the beds?

You want “garden blend” soil, which is half topsoil and half compost. Plants need the minerals of the dirt AND organic matter – don’t use just one or the other. You’ll need one cubic yard to fill a 4’x8′ bed 6-8″ deep.

Where should I get soil?

If you’re near Ann Arbor and you only need a couple yards of soil, I’d order it from Lodi Farms. They’ll deliver small loads at a decent price. It will have some weeds in it (all bulk soil does) but they’re easy to remove. For larger loads, other places, like EZ Landscaping, are probably less expensive. The soil is all more or less the same quality, and all good enough to get started with.

Don’t raised beds dry out really fast?

I water mine deeply about once a week – twice if it’s really dry, not at all if we get a good rain. They seem to do just fine and they don’t “bake” any faster than the rest of the yard. And because the soil’s so loamy, it doesn’t get compacted like the rest of my clay yard does.

Is it better to put all the plants of the same family in one bed, or spread them around?

I like putting them into one bed for two reasons: it makes crop rotation easier, and similar plants often need similar protection. So, I can fence the beans easily, and cover all the brassicas to keep out the caterpillars. Other folks like mixing up the plant families to explore companion planting, or to prevent pests and diseases from moving like wildfire through all the plants of that family. It’s up to you – both approaches have advantages!

Should I start my own seeds indoors?

Probably not, especially your first year. Seed starting is its own skill, and you’re going to have your hands full enough. Your first garden will probably be a mix of seeds you plant directly in the garden bed (green beans, lettuce, carrots, squash) and plants you bought at the market or store (tomatoes, peppers). And potatoes, which you plant in the garden as actual potatoes, and which will grow a new potato plant. For more details on what to plant as a seed outdoors vs. transplanting something that was started indoors, see Should I buy seeds or transplants?

Do I have to worry about crop rotation this year? I’m getting overwhelmed!

Personally, I think it’s much more important to get out there and start your first garden than to worry about rotating crops your first year or two. Crop rotation is certainly a concern as you think about long-term sustainability. If you plant the same crop in the same place year after year, it will deplete the soil of its favorite nutrients, and it’s possible that diseases and pests will build up in the soil. So do think about it…but if it’s too much for this year, don’t sweat it.

See also:

Insane crop planning spreadsheet

Ok, you can blame Patti and Derrick – they asked for it! And I had to do something to keep up with Rob’s amazing garden bed rotation spreadsheet. So, here’s Emily’s Totally Insane Spreadsheet for Planning What to Plant to Live Out Of Your Garden. Also known as “can I feed my family on one acre?” (Answer: Yes. But you might not want to.) And yes, I realize I have waaaaaaay too much time on my hands.

It’s in GoogleDocs spreadsheet format. Click the little orange triangles for comments. Be sure to look at both sheets (tabs along the bottom) and scroll down – calorie crops are at the top and vegetables at the bottom. You should be able to click the GoogleDocs File menu and export it to your own GoogleDocs account, or to Excel or .csv format. Then you’ll be able to play with the numbers, add foods, etc. If you’re as big a geek as I am, this is the fun part.

The basic idea is it takes just short of a million calories to feed a person 2500 calories per day for a year. I’ve looked up the number of calories per pound of food, and the number of pounds of food that can grow in a square foot (using John Jeavons’s Biointensive raised-bed methods). Put in the number of people you’ll be feeding, and the spreadsheet keeps a running tally of how many calories you’ve planted and how many more you’ll need to grow to feed everyone for a year. As you’re planning, be realistic about what you like to eat, what you can store, what’s a pain in the butt to raise or process, and get a good variety so you don’t get scurvy or really, really sick of parsnips.

Even if you don’t intend to live off your 1/4 acre lot, this is eye opening. Think your 1000 sf tomato garden is great shakes? Calorie-wise, that’ll feed one person for two months. I’m growing wheat on a very, very small scale right now, and had been thinking of expanding. But looking at the scale needed, and the work involved in harvesting wheat by hand, makes me think what communities need is a central wheat farm with big machines and individual gardens full of potatoes and rutabagas (swedes).

Have fun kids!

Michigan fall garden

Even though my garden is essentially full right now, I’ve been wondering if I can plant yet more this year. I do have some dirt leftover and could always use another bed…but what could I plant now? And the winter wheat and first spring onions and peas will be out of the garden in a few weeks…so what should I plant in the spaces they vacate?

After a bit of searching, I found a nice guide to fall vegetable gardening in Michigan (pdf) from the MSU Extension office. It has planting and harvest dates, as well as some varieties to try.

I’ll be curious to see if this works. These are mostly “cool weather crops,” and it seems odd to plant them in late July, which is anything but cool here. Perhaps some shade netting is in order. I also have a hard time imagining planting kale, as the kale in the garden will keep going strong until December – or until I eat it all, which usually happens first. Hmm, though I suppose I could plant *more* of it and then maybe it would last…

I’m still pondering a greenhouse, but I can’t bring myself to look out into my yard and see a plastic quonset hut, and other options are really too expensive. This year I’m going to see if I can do something smaller and portable, perhaps just put plastic on my screen house to convert it into a mini-greenhouse for winter.

It’s not too late to start a garden!

Hey, all you northern folks! It’s not too late to start a garden this summer! Heck, all us early gardeners got bitten by a hard frost the last week in May, so you’re actually ahead of the game.

First, be sure you’ve got the basics covered: sun, soil, and water. Then the fun part: planting!

You can plant any summer crops right now and still expect a good harvest. You might try:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Eggplants
  • Beans
  • Squash – summer types like zucchini or yellow crookneck, winter types like acorn or butternut, cucumbers, melons, etc.
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Chard
  • Grains
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Quinoa

The following are usually “cool weather” crops but should do fine unless there’s a big heat wave soon:

  • Kale and broccoli (start from plants, not seeds, at this point)
  • Peas
  • Fennel
  • Potatoes

The only things I wouldn’t bother with at this point are lettuce and spinach – it’ll probably get too hot for them before they’re big enough to eat. Though if you can find some seedlings cheap, give it a whirl in a shady location. If the summer gets off to a cool start, they might do quite well!

My Seed (non-)Starting

GardenersSome years, I just can’t wait to get gardening. Sometime in February, I haul out the racks and lights and set up a Wall o’Sprouty Goodness in the yoga room. It makes me smile to exercise in the morning and see all the little seedlings.

This year…not so much. Allow me to list for you the seeds I will be starting indoors:

  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Chard?
  • Corni di Toro peppers…if I feel like it…but I can get something similar at the market…
  • Ummm…

And you know what? It’ll work out just fine. I’ll buy some organic heirloom tomato and lettuce seedlings at the market (we are so lucky to have this market) and maybe some leeks from the garden store. Most everything else will be seeded directly in the garden. And I can’t even think about that until the peas go in in April.

If I get itchy, I might plant some more stuff inside, or toss a cold frame out into the garden…hmmm, I could do my kale and such out there and skip indoor seeding altogether…that would be way easier than setting up the grow racks…

The take-away? Don’t get intimidated or guilty if you see the long lists of stuff people are planting indoors. That activity is as much for the sanity of the gardener as it is for the health of the garden. 🙂

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